Being White Does Not Make You An Expert On Race And Racism

Image source: Alex Garland

Image source: Alex Garland

I use and consume water every day, multiple times each day.  But, I would never call myself a water scientist.  (My ignorance shows in even having to look up the term, the profession of researchers who study water.)

I watch television daily, and frequently watch movies either at home or, less often, at the movie theatre.  My strong opinions and preferences aside, I would never call myself a TV or film critic.

I drive almost daily, and have been driving regularly for 17 years now. But, I don’t know the first thing about cars, and certainly wouldn’t call myself a mechanic.

I was assigned a racial identity at birth — two actually, Black and white — and have lived as a raced person in a racist society for 32 years.  I tentatively call myself an expert on race and racism because I study and teach about them, though they are not my primary area of research or teaching.  But, if these topics never appeared in my work as a scholar, I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

“Opinions Are Like Assholes…”

I am certain that most academics and laypeople share my hesitancy to claim expertise on water, the arts, and automobiles if they lack formal training or long-term experience (research, teaching, or performance) in these areas.  Though we may self-diagnose illness and injuries with WebMD, we still end up in a doctor’s office for a “real” diagnosis and treatment. How did we ever survive before there was quick and easy access to internet search engines?  Google is a verb, and Let Me Google That For You exists as a snarky response to idiotic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search.

But, race and racism seem to be the exception.  Everyone, regardless of education level, seems to be an expert on race.  Collectively, white Americans presumed to understand racism well enough to conclude that it no longer existed upon the election of a half-white, half-Black person to US President who likely only had a shot at the office because he was raised by his white mother.  I know from my slowly evolving awareness of the ways in which white privilege — specifically, the white privilege passed on to me by my white heterosexual middle-class cis man currently without disabilities father — that has benefited my own life that Obama’s upbringing is not typical for Black Americans today.  But, that nuance never appeared in mainstream discourse about the election of “the first Black president.”  And, I ask of those quick to declare we live in a post-racial (or even post-racist) society — yes, even some academics… who study race (please, excuse my shade…) — how the hell did we end up here with a known racist as Obama’s successor?

I certainly understand why race and racism are hard to understand for those who do not empirically analyze them for a living.  There is a nifty analogy for gender, that it is like the water that surrounds us as fish.  We take it for granted; it is there from birth — assigned to us, thrust upon us, taught to us, and then policed when we deviate — and thus we come to think of it as natural.  In other words, it is incredibly difficult to step outside of gender to understand it, especially gender as a social structure — a system that organizes the social world from gendered identities and expressions to sexist laws and policies.  Gender seems so everyday, so familiar, and so mundane that it is easy to only see it as something individuals have, thereby missing it as a system of oppression that shapes and constrains our lives and livelihood, interests, interactions with others, and even our organizations and institutions.  Gender is complex and ever-changing; we need women’s and gender studies programs to even begin to grapple with this complicated social system.

Race and racism share the mundaneness that we sense of gender.  We take for granted that race exists, naively assuming that it has always existed, and, by extension, is a universal and essential artifact.  Though the social construction of race has caught on as a more adequate way of conceptualizing of race, there are still spoken and unspoken glimmers of the assumption that race is biological.  There is also the stubborn mentality that racism is solely the explicit expression of prejudice toward others of a different race, which leaves anti-racist activists and scholars stuck with the perpetual burden of having to prove that racism manifests structurally and unconsciously, as well.  That’s why whites’ resentment about “PC culture” — modern social etiquette that demands you simply not say something deemed racist — is misplaced; yes, please stop referring to Black people as monkeys, but, you should also stop killing us, denying us jobs and promotions, withholding affordable loans and excluding us from predominantly white neighborhoods, expelling us from school or even sending us to prison over minor disciplinary problems, and so forth.

Race and racism are complex systems.  That is why there are scholars who devote their careers to their study.  That is why there are academic programs in racial and ethnic studies, Black studies, Africana and African American studies, Latina/o/x studies, Indigenous studies, American Indian and Native American studies, Asian and Asian American studies, Black women’s studies, Muslim and Islamic studies, Judaic studies, cultural studies, American studies, etc. The study of race, racism, and racialized communities also appears in more traditional academic programs like sociology, psychology, English, social psychology, music, theatre, art, and political science.

Race and racism warrant academic inquiry because they are important, but also because they are incredibly complicated and ever-changing.  I’m afraid your uncle Joe’s assessment of who is ISIS and who isn’t fails to constitute expertise.  I’m disinclined to consider your mom as a race scholar just because she (thinks she) has one American Indian friend.  I’d be wary of your boss’s conclusion that “Hispanics will take over America” because he gets nervous around the office’s janitorial staff when they “refuse” to speak in English in his presence.  And, I’m rolling my eyes at your friend’s story that she experienced “reverse racism” because the Black Starbucks barista was “mean” to her (read: didn’t roll out the red carpet to celebrate her existence because she’s white).  Yes, I am intentionally drawing upon examples of racial prejudice here because many everyday whites draw upon their bias and stereotypes as expertise on race and racism.

I Blame Academia (Or, What’s New?)

More frustrating is that whites’ arrogance about their expertise on race and racism exist alongside their dismissal of academic study of these topics.  And even more frustrating is that I have witnessed this not among laypeople — those whom we might dismiss as ignorant or uneducated if we are disinclined to be sympathetic, or inclined to be elitist — but from fellow academics.  Many white PhD educated people, whom I would assume to have an appreciation of other disciplines and be self-reflective about the limits of their own expertise, are quick to devalue research and teaching on race and racism.  Even in my own discipline (sociology), race and ethnicity scholars — specifically those who are scholars of color — are faced with accusations of conducting “me-search“; by virtue of their inability to be “objective” (a privilege reserved for whites, no matter their research area), their work is dismissed.  More generally, the study of communities of color is dismissed (yes, even in sociology).

I suppose we cannot be too hard on uncle Joe, your mom, your boss, and your friend for believing they are experts on race and ethnicity.  The academy itself is complicit in devaluing formal academic study of race and racism.  Though racial and ethnic studies and similar programs exist, they are woefully underfunded, underresourced, understaffed, and are increasingly under threat.  These topics have never been seriously championed in academia, and support for these programs may even be waning (at least in some places).  You can get a PhD in Black studies, but I’m not so sure you can expect to get a tenure-track faculty position (if that is your goal).  You can specialize in race and ethnicity as a sociologist, but publishing in top mainstream sociology journals will be a challenge, as will securing grant funding.  Oh, and get ready to be challenged by your students who think they know as much about race as you do (if not more if you are an instructor of color).  Why should we expect everyday white folks to take seriously “the leading expert on racism” when such scholars are not celebrated and respected as would be “the leading heart surgeon” or, hell, even the worst physician alive who, nonetheless, has the respect afforded to doctors?

The academy’s devaluation of academic study of race and racism makes it complicit in the rampant ignorance about race and ethnicity in the US.  It is partially responsible for the inevitable rise of Trump and fellow white supremacists.  It is responsible for the success of the narrative of angry poor whites who put Trump in office, despite empirical evidence that it was racism and sexism that gave him the election.  It is responsible for the dumb notion that whites can be victims of racism or the more perverse “reverse racism”, that calling attention to racism is “playing the race card” or wallowing in victimhood.  Academia is responsible for the disgusting reality that Black women scholars’ teaching and public writing about racism can successfully be demeaned as racism — this is reflected best by the fact that these scholars actually get in trouble for doing the work they were trained and hired to do!

Concluding Thoughts

The supposed post-racist era is dead, which actually serves as more proof that it never existed to begin with.  We cannot even optimistically say we’ve entered a new era of racism because many of the features of old-school racism have reemerged (including Nazism and a bit of anti-Semitism).

But, racism today is undeniably more complex than ever before.  As such, this moment is a crucial one to turn to experts on race and racism to understand how we got here and how to move closer to the death of racism.  And, by experts, I mean people who have extensive academic training and who study race and ethnicity for a living.  Now is the time to seriously support academic programs devoted to the study of race and racism.  It is the time to hire race and ethnicity scholars to aid in developing new laws, policies, and programs.  It is the time to listen to the experts of race and racism like we would to those who study climate change, or medicine, or biology, or space.  Maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess right now if we had already been seriously listening to the experts.

Jackson Wright Shultz Reflects On Conditional Gender Privilege

shultzJackson Wright Shultz (@WriteRadically) is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jackson reflects on his “conditional” male and cisgender privileges — contingent on others’ assumptions about his sex and gender identity — and how they benefit him in the classroom. 

Be sure to check out Jackson’s first guest post, too!


On Conditional Gender Privilege

At the end of my first term as an adjunct, I nervously awaited the receipt of my student evaluations. From the moment that I submitted the final grades for my classes, I lived in a state of anxiety. I kept replaying the events of the semester over and over in my mind. Did I explain the course expectations thoroughly? Did I make myself available to students often enough? Was I approachable? Did my students actually learn anything? Perhaps my anxiety stemmed from being new to teaching, or perhaps it was rooted in the knowledge that as an adjunct my future employment depends in no small part on the evaluations my students give me, Several weeks after the term ended, my evaluations finally arrived. My hand over my eyes, I peered apprehensively through my fingers, reading each student comment with a combination of dread and excitement. The first evaluation was positive. As was the second. And the third! I continued reading with growing enthusiasm and relief. All of my students provided glowing reviews of my teaching.

For a full two minutes I was elated. My world was an idyllic sphere of thoughtful students who cared deeply about learning and who respected my pedagogical methods. Yet, as I re-read the evaluations, my blissful smile slowly sank into a frown. The words that had comforted me moments ago were suddenly glaring red flags: confident, awesome, interesting, organized, and even one gnarly. I knew that there was little hope, but I still desperately wanted to believe that these were objective, unbiased reviews. So, I called a colleague to ask how she fared in her evaluations.

“Don’t even ask,” she sighed, “One student wrote, ‘I’m not sure what was going on with her hair, but it was very distracting.’ It only goes downhill from there.”

I hung up, disheartened. I had wanted to believe that my teaching was as outstanding and gnarly as my students suggested, but as many women in academia have noted and countless studies prove, student evaluations are all too often biased along gender lines. I didn’t work harder than any of the other adjuncts in my department, and I had significantly less teaching experience than the majority of women with whom I worked. My excellent evaluations were the product of male privilege, and nothing more.

Recognizing And Using My Privilege

As a transmasculine individual and a feminist, it is critical that I recognize and push back on my gender privilege. My students see me as a white, able-bodied man and evaluate me as such. Not only is my male privilege abundantly clear in my evaluations from, and interactions with, students, other faculty, and administrators, my cisgender privilege is, as well. In my case, having cisgender privilege, sometimes heinously referred to as “passing” privilege, means that I am consistently perceived as a man and assumed to be male. It doesn’t matter that I am not cisgender: I still benefit from cisgender privilege. In part, this means that I have the option of whether or not I disclose to others that I am transgender – a luxury and a safety that many trans people can only fathom.

Yet both my male and cisgender privileges are entirely conditional. They are predicated on other people remaining ignorant of the fact that I am trans. They are privileges that can be revoked by coworkers “outing” me to my supervisors or students, by glancing at the extensive list of transgender-related publications on my CV, or by merely Googling my name. In some ways, these gender-based privileges are single use: once my status as a trans person is discovered, the scene roughly equates to the villagers descending upon Frankenstein’s monster with torches and pitchforks. Minimally, once my trans status is “discovered,” my cisgender privilege vanishes, my male privilege dissipates, and my acceptance as an instructor and scholar is retracted. In practical terms, being “outed” could easily result in me receiving negative student evaluations, experiencing harassment in the workplace, or even being fired.

Thus far, I have been extremely fortunate in my academic career to have an open-minded supervisor who hired me in spite of my lavender vita, as well as coworkers whom I can trust. I’m not naïve enough to believe that I’ll continue for much longer in my career without others in my department or on campus realizing that I’m trans. Alas, the internet exists. While many trans individuals in generations past transitioned and disappeared into the woodwork, the anonymity that they were able to achieve is difficult, if not impossible, for a generation raised on the Internet. My online presence is hardly stealth, and comes with calculated risks. By blogging and publishing without the use of a pseudonym, I hazard that my coworkers, supervisors, or students may soon put two and two together, and the consequences for me could be dire if they do–particularly as an adjunct (a topic for future discussion).

For the time being, however, my open presence online allows me to frame the conversation about myself as a trans scholar. Likewise, in the office, my cisgender and male privileges, though conditional, afford me the agency to advocate for transgender colleagues and students who are not in safe positions to self-advocate, as well as to call out sexism and misogyny in the workplace without risking the scorn, scrutiny, and career-hampering that women often face for the same actions. I am fully cognizant that I was once in their positions and could be again, and I act with an awareness that dismantling the institutions that uphold and enforce sexism benefits everyone. My hope is that if and when my conditional privileges are stripped away and I am no longer in a position to self-advocate or frame the conversation about myself, maybe I will have affected enough micro-level changes that my students and colleagues will be able to engage in constructive dialogues around gender and leave the pitchforks at home.



Jackson Wright Shultz is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College. He obtained his MALS degree from Dartmouth College (2014), and will begin his Doctorate of Education in the fall. He recently gave a TEDx Talk on transgender liberation and gender equity. His personal research interests include technology law, social media studies, women and gender studies, critical race studies, queer theory, composition pedagogy, higher education administration, and oral history. His first book, Trans/Portraits, will be released in October 2015 from the University Press of New England.

Luck Is For White People

Photo by SuperFantastic

Photo by SuperFantastic

To my surprise, I have been referred to as “lucky” on several occasions since beginning my job last August.  I am “lucky” to even have a job, a tenure-track job, particularly immediately following graduate school.  I am “lucky” to have published anything during my first year on the job.  I am “lucky” to have a partner while on the tenure-track.

Well, I do not feel lucky.  Considering all that I compromised in order to be lucky in the ways that I supposedly am, and the ways in which I am not lucky — disadvantaged, really — I would suggest luck is a gift shared only by the privileged.

What Is Luck, Anyhow?

Let’s go right to the dictionary definitionthe things that happen to a person because of chance; or, the accidental way things happen without being planned.  There is no systemic or predictable way in which something occurred.  Also, it is important to note that said “lucky” event occurred outside of the lucky individual’s control.  Instantly, as a sociologist, I balk at the notion that events occur randomly (outside of the influence of social forces) and unintentionally (outside of individual agency).  I cannot say that sociological theories of structure and agency have ever attempted to explain every event, as some things probably are unpredictable and are not regulated by social forces.  However, a good deal of what we consider “luck” certainly can be explained by an individuals’ behaviors, thoughts, feelings, interactions, and resources within various social systems.

I do not invoke sociological theory for the sheer purposes of being a party-pooper.  I often call upon luck for some favorable outcome, and regularly wish friends, family, colleagues, and students “good luck!” for evaluations and competitions in which success is not guaranteed.  I have, indeed, lost a couple hundred dollars in my lifetime to casinos and raffles.  Luck can be fun, but it is a poor explanation for getting a job, publishing an article, finding a partner, and other events that are largely explained by social forces and (to a less extent) individual effort.

Rejecting The “Lucky” Explanation For My Success And Well-Being

I am particularly resentful toward accusations of “luck” as a fat Black queer person living in a fatphobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic society.  I will admit, given these identities coupled with my scholarship, I initially felt that securing a job wasn’t merely luck, but a frickin’ miracle.  And, I partially attributed the success of publishing an article in my first year to the editor’s favorable view of the topic.  And, I allowed myself to feel fortunate in having a partner when other assistant professors begin the journey toward tenure without the support of a partner.

But, two things have led me to reject the “lucky” hypothesis.  First, a good friend of mine called me out on Facebook for ignoring all of the hard work, perseverance, talent, and support that went into my dissertation and subsequent job offers by buying into the “lucky” explanation.  I unintentionally reinforced the notion that marginalized people cannot succeed in academia on their own merit; those who are not so lucky, then, obviously have no hope for the kind of success I have seen in the past couple of years. This also erases the ways in which white middle-class heterosexual men are systematically advantaged in academia, including their ease of finding mentors, minimal concerns about their pregnancy or parental status, no questions about why they were hired (e.g., spousal hire, diversity hire), and little concern about the narrowness of their research because they study themselves.  How can I be “lucky” when I would probably have had to stay in graduate school an additional 2 years to achieve the publication records of white heterosexual counterparts who didn’t waste the first two years on misery and self-doubt?  Fuck lucky.  I earned my degree and this job, albeit with the support of mentors, friends, and family.

The other reason I have grown increasingly wary of the “lucky” thesis is the insistence with which it is applied.  I have heard “you’re so lucky” on multiple occasions from the same people.  By the second, third, fourth times and beyond, I began to question why I kept hearing it.  Should I see myself as somehow privileged because I “beat the odds” in this increasingly adjunctified era of academia?  Should I see myself as privileged because I am in a long-term same-gender relationship?  Should I feel guilty?  Eventually, I learned to see the accusation of luck as a reflection of the lives and conditions of the people saying it.  There may even be an element of envy or resentment behind “you’re so lucky.”

Concluding Thoughts

I suspect that the core problem is making assumptions about my life and how it has unfolded without knowing me very well, and without the respect of finding out.  Knowing only the outcome, the individual jumps to the conclusion that it is the product of luck.  Really, we know what happens when you ass-u-me.  “Lucky” erases my own efforts, survivorship, aspirations, and the support I have received from others.  “Lucky” overlooks that I sacrificed so much along the way, and still live with the emotional scars of graduate training.  “Lucky” somehow ignores that my partner and I just gained the right to marry in this state a few weeks ago, and still face other challenges as an interracial queer couple in the South.  “Lucky” does not know that I am the sole breadwinner because, after struggling to find a job most of last year, my partner is now back in school.

Sure, we can talk about the ways in which I am privileged as a man, as a person from a middle-class family (albeit upwardly mobile from their working-class roots), as a person without disabilities, as a US citizen, and, really, even as the son of a white (Jewish) heterosexual man.  And, we can certainly talk about what I have lost out on as a queer person, a (multiracial) Black person, as a fat person, and the intersections among these identities.  But, I refuse to have a serious conversation about the role of “luck” in my career and my life.  Lucky doesn’t live here.

“I Just Want A Full-Time Job”

The following post was written by Anonymous.


I recently took an administrative position in a campus unit that had been formed by the consolidation of several preexisting units. It fell to me a few weeks ago to effectively fire a contingent faculty member who came from one of those previous units. I didn’t want this task, and it turned out to be harder than I anticipated. But I hope that what I learned will help me be a better administrator going forward, and potentially help others. For the sake of anonymity, I will call this faculty member “Jim.” I had never met Jim in person before he came to my office to discuss the reorganization of activities and priorities in my new unit, a conversation that ended with me telling him there was no place for him. Jim was a research assistant professor, and had been employed by my university for about five years. He started out teaching one course each year, and then supplemented that by securing external grant funding that pays part of his salary. He also works for other universities on a consulting basis.

To contextualize this story, my university is a place of great privilege and my own position is among the more privileged in the university. I have tenure, a leadership position, discretionary budgets, and respect in and out of the university. Departments and programs in my university treat our contingent faculty well. I have often thought with pride that, while we shouldn’t be hiring people into such insecure positions, we do better by them than many other universities. Our “visiting” faculty receive benefits and earn a living wage, and our adjuncts earn $10,000 to $15,000 per course. Jim was able to apply for external grants as a Principal Investigator in the same way tenure-track faculty do. So, feel free to say that everything I describe here is a “first world” problem among the universe of adjunct experiences, or that I am naively living in a bubble. I’m well aware that I should have known better.

When Jim came to my office, I knew the conversation would be unpleasant. No one had discussed with him what the restructuring might mean for his position, and Jim had been complaining to staff about some recent changes that had affected him. I also realize now that I went in with the wrong assumptions about contingent faculty that many people have. I assumed that Jim had chosen this mix of activities at my university because he really wanted to live in this city or work here, or that he probably had a spouse who needed to stay in the area. This looks completely idiotic and embarrassing, as well as conceited about my university, when I put it in words. Like I said, you can call me naïve or anything else, but I imagine I’m not the only one who had assumed the precarity of adjunct work was someone else’s problem.

I spent about half an hour talking with Jim, describing the new organization of the unit and discussing how he came to this university and his research. While discussing the combination he had pursued of teaching and external grants, and gently asking him about the potential of one of his other contract positions becoming permanent, I was framing the conversation in terms of what he wanted to do over the next few years. This is a familiar conversation that I have with all my graduate students. When he said “I just want a full-time job,” and his eyes filled with tears, I was shocked to realize all my preconceptions had been wrong. My first instinct at that moment was to give him the full-time job, but that doesn’t fit with the reality of my position. I was trapped in a situation in which I had to tell someone that they were no longer welcome, that it was effectively not my problem if he was unemployed when his current grant funding ends. All I could offer him was a letter saying that he had to leave because of restructuring and not because of any evaluation of the quality of his work. A poor substitute for real support.

My second thought during and after talking with Jim was anger at the faculty member who had hired Jim. He did no one a favor by hiring Jim into a position that was renewable indefinitely and allowing Jim to apply for grants that committed the university to activities over more years than Jim’s initial appointment. While that did give Jim a (part-time) job for several years, it also gave an implicit promise that Jim was part of our community and would be able to continue in his position indefinitely. As a result, telling Jim that he no longer fits with the mission of the new unit felt cruel, and I believe it was a surprise to him.

I take two personal lessons from this experience, and I hope that others can learn from my experience. First, I need more humility; we here at my fancy university are not as exempt as I thought from the inhumane treatment of our contingent faculty. Second, I will never hire any PhD-level scholar/teacher/researcher without a clear term and regular ongoing communication about opportunities (or lack thereof) for retention and advancement.

For those of you similarly moving into positions in which you could hire contingent faculty, including both temporary instructors and research faculty, I would suggest the following:

  • Don’t convince yourself to hire someone with a vague and open-ended informal understanding. If you give vague explicit or implied promises but aren’t willing and able to hire them with a multi-year contract, you are setting them and yourself up for trouble. Eventually letting them go will be hard for you, and their employment at your university won’t necessarily have set them up for success.
  • Be completely clear about what you can offer and what they should expect, no matter how uncomfortable it is to say to someone that they will never get a permanent position at your school.
  • Pay attention to contingent faculty under your purview, and ask them how you can help with their careers.
  • Don’t wait until you are letting someone go and there’s no time left to help, but also don’t assume you know what career they want or what will help them toward that career. Contingent faculty may unfortunately be second-class citizens in our universities, but they aren’t students or children looking for our guidance.

The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia.  I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!).  And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).

Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia.  But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia.  I am referring to those who willfully do not see them.  Let me give a few examples, big and small:

  • Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around.  Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much.  Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
  • Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market.  And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations.  Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
  • Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations.  “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?”  Both times, I had to look away and count to ten.  Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
  • Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work.  In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!).  I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department.  Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
  • Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it.  What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers.  Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued.  I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline.  For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school.  Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals.  But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
  • Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation].  Want the most career options?  Select a white man as your dissertation chair.  Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia?  Hmm, that probably is not a white man.  So, what do you value more — your success or your survival?  Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee.  Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc.  But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
  • In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged.  At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia!  Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”  “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  “How could she be racist?”  Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more!  Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability!  non-generalizable!  selection effect!  At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?

Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse.  We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces.  And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged.  Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.

This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer”  Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it.  At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness.  In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement.  We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.

Dr. Brent Harger On Academia As A Middle Class “Star Career”

brentBrent Harger is an assistant professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Harger (which rhymes with charger) teaches in the areas of methods, family, youth, and education.  His research examines the ways in which students and teachers create and maintain culture in elementary schools.

Below, Dr. Harger reflects on the depressing reality that few prospective graduate students will conclude their graduate training with a tenure-track faculty job.  Academic careers may be becoming a privilege afforded primarily to middle-class and wealthy people.

Academia as a Middle Class “Star Career”

The academic job market is horrible. So is academia as a whole. It is nearly impossible to obtain a tenure-track job and even tenure itself is no guarantee that one will be able to keep one’s job. Surveying the landscape of higher education, Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory says not to go to graduate school. So does Rebecca Schuman at Slate. As academics, we know that going to graduate school is not a good idea, especially if you must go into debt to do so. Nevertheless, when students ask us to write letters of recommendation for graduate programs, we tell them to think carefully about their decision to dedicate years of their lives to something that is unlikely to result in full-time paid employment and then we write the letters. After all, who are we (especially those of us with tenure-track jobs ourselves) to tell people not to follow their dreams? Thus, academia becomes a middle class “star career.”

In Living the Drama, David Harding examines the influence of cultural heterogeneity on the lives of African American boys growing up in Boston, MA. Harding argues that the presence of both mainstream and alternative cultural models in poor neighborhoods leads adolescents to switch among competing models because numerous models are available and supported (“I can go to college or become a rapper or become an NBA player”). Cultural heterogeneity also dilutes the information that adolescents need to construct effective pathways toward goals like getting into college and leads to the unsuccessful mixing of various cultural models (“Playing basketball will make up for my low GPA when applying for college; I can make it to the NBA by playing for a community college”).

In a poor neighborhood, then, the idea of a “star career” like becoming a famous athlete or rapper coexists with the idea of getting good grades, graduating from high school, and enrolling in college. Adolescents in wealthier areas were aware of star careers but saw music or sports as hobbies rather than legitimate career options. Many of the parents of poor adolescents could see that a focus on potential star careers might distract their sons from academic pursuits but were also hesitant to tell their sons that their dreams were unrealistic. A focus on a career as a professional basketball player, however unlikely, could also serve to keep students in school and away from danger.

Aside from the income differences between the boys who wanted to become famous in Harding’s study and middle-class undergraduates who want to become professors, there are a number of parallels. Consider the NBA. Over half a million adolescent boys play high school basketball. Of these, an estimated 17,500 (3.2%) will play basketball in college and 48 (48!) (1.2% of college players, .03% of high school players) are drafted annually by the NBA.

If we consider high school basketball to be analogous to obtaining an undergraduate degree, a small number of successful undergraduates will be offered the opportunity to “play” in graduate school. Some of these students will be offered scholarships, others will pay for the costs themselves, but for both college basketball players and graduate students, the likelihood that their training will pay off at the next level is low. Both also have the potential to be incredibly lucrative for their universities, with high-profile college basketball programs bringing in millions of dollars in TV revenues and graduate students providing universities with cheap labor. In the end, some college basketball players and graduate students will have degrees to show for their time as low-paid (or paying!) employees while others will drop out along the way. A few will go on to successful careers as NBA players or college professors, inspiring others to attempt to follow in their footsteps.

As professors who encourage students to follow their dreams of academic lives because we warned them and there is always a chance, we also contribute to the reproduction of inequality in academia. As a graduate degree becomes an increasingly expensive career goal for students to pursue, it becomes more likely that students who will do so will be privileged in other ways. Whether this is white skin and academic parents or a spouse who can support them while they scrape together an income as an adjunct, the risks associated with an advanced degree make it more likely that those who undertake the endeavor will have external support. Because of this, it may be middle or upper class students who are most likely to experience cultural heterogeneity when considering what to do after graduating from college. Those from less privileged backgrounds may be more likely to see academic interests as a hobby that they experience by reading blogs and academic works after their jobs in the “real world.”

Like attempting to make it from high school to college to the NBA, the problems with academia are structural. Budget concerns lead schools to accept more graduate students than will be able to find tenure-track jobs because they provide cheap labor. Students who receive advanced degrees but do not find tenure-track jobs provide further cheap labor as adjuncts. In an individualistic society like the U.S., it is difficult to dissuade students with structural arguments because there is always a chance that they, like Victor Oladipo, will be the exception.

If a student plays college basketball for four years and does not have the opportunity to play professionally, that student at least has a college degree that provides some job prospects. Graduate programs, though, are like allowing students to major in basketball, leaving them with few options if they do not get “drafted” into academia. In an ideal world, graduate programs would accept fewer students and provide those students with better resources, removing the need for outside support and reducing the number of job candidates after graduation. Fewer excess Ph.D.s would also reduce the number of available adjuncts, causing colleges and universities to rely less on contingent faculty.

All of this places those of us who have been drafted into academia after graduate school in a difficult position. Even from this privileged position, the dangers for others who want to do the same are clear. When a student asks me for a grad school letter of recommendation, then, I will say “no,” detailing the structural dangers and encouraging the student to think carefully about accepting academia as a hobby rather than a career goal. When the student insists that he or she has thought carefully and is willing to accept the risks, I will have no choice but to write the letter. I will add, however, that if accepted, there is no shame in quitting.

Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia By Victor Ray

victor rayVictor Ray is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Duke University. He will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall. His research is on organizational responses to racial and gender discrimination. You can follow Victor on Twitter at @victorerikray

Below, Victor reflects on his frustration with his department’s award-winning level of diversity, at least on paper, that contradicts the otherwise exclusive department climate, norms, and practices.

My department just won the inaugural Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence, an award that is meant to reward the department for “extraordinary achievements” in promoting diversity in its graduate student body.  I was surprised by the news, as my experiences as a student of color in this department have been less than inclusive and other than excellent. Although students of color are indeed admitted to the graduate program, and even make it through to the PhD, they may still be psychologically scarred in the process. In fact, graduate students in nominally diverse departments can experience a backlash against diversity, as professors and students may be bothered by rising numbers of minorities. We are, after all, taking “their” resources.

I thought that the awarding of this “honor” would be a good time to write about the contradictions between symbolic inclusion and forms of de facto exclusion.  Awards like these only serve to reward organizations for their nominal commitment to a vague conception of diversity, without actually encouraging any improvement in the institutional treatment of people of color.

Although students of color were surprised just to hear the news of the award, the process got even more farcical when my department put up an announcement on its website celebrating the award.  The photo next to the announcement is a generic stock photo of “diverse business people” that turns up on the first page of a Google search for “diversity.” This photo was used because the classes are so overwhelmingly white that they couldn’t use a photo of an actual classroom to show racial diversity.  Of course, the response to this was typical of the many schools that suffer from this dilemma: they asked the folks of color to provide a photo or congregate for a photo-shoot.  We refused, deciding collectively that the stock photo is a better representation of the empty type of diversity these awards celebrate.

Diversity Matters

I want to emphasize that the department itself has done little to create or support a diverse environment.  Organizations don’t make themselves more diverse out of benevolence—they are pushed.  Students of color and white allies within the department have fought for years to get more classes on race and ethnicity and faculty hires of color (with little success).  We’ve written letters, spoken with deans and department chairs, and served on hiring committees.  There is considerable cost to this type of organizing, in time not spent on schoolwork, in the psychological tax of tokenism, and in risking the label of racial militancy, all of which affect subsequent employment opportunities.  These requests for substantive changes have largely been met with the typical excuses that universities make—pipeline issues, a lack of “qualified” scholars of color (whereas white mediocrity goes unremarked upon), budget shortfalls, etc.

As a stopgap means of providing more support for race scholarship, students of color also organized a race workshop, providing a space for students, postdocs, and professors from across the campus and from other institutions.  The majority of white faculty in my department rarely attends this workshop—but this award gives them credit that work.  Further, faculty members get angry that students have the audacity to organize.  Essentially, for pointing out that there is a problem with racial inequality, you become the problem.  You have, after all, made (white) power uncomfortable.  The racial etiquette of our “colorblind” era means you’re rude for talking about such things.

While the award was supposed to take curriculum into account, this is also an area that is significantly lacking.  The normative environment of graduate school is white and male.  White men often teach the core courses in sociology programs (Theory, Stats, Methods).  Their job is to socialize you into “the center” of the discipline; a center that historically and presently contains few (fully acknowledged) people of color.  These men have variable levels of hostility towards race work: for instance, I was told in my theory class that if we wanted to learn about racial theory, we should go study with the department’s one black male professor.  The simple fact that they are often the gatekeepers of the discipline sends a symbolic message.   The problem with this sort of diversity is we are only accepted on their terms.

Beyond the symbolic messages of these gatekeepers and the curriculum they prioritize, interactions with white professors hostile to race scholarship can silence students.1  For instance, on the first day of a seminar, there was an intense discussion on the “culture of poverty” thesis and Black families.  The professor and I were on opposite sides of this debate. I left the class feeling exhilarated—we had had an excellent civil exchange (or so I thought), with both of us defending our positions with citations.  An hour after the class, I got an email from the prof asking me to come to his office.  Upon arrival, he discussed our debate through a host of racist tropes, telling me I was hostile, angry, threatening, and subjective in evaluating evidence.  He told me I needed to moderate my tone. (He, of course, had only been objective and dispassionate while using the same tone in the discussion.) He had all the power in the situation, and I was effectively silenced.  Of course, harassment proceedings exist to allegedly remedy this type of behavior, but research shows reporting superiors can end careers.  The diversity we add to the department is supposed to be seen, not heard.

As a very light-skinned black man, I realize that I do not experience the overt racism of, say, being racially profiled by campus police or asked regularly if I am a student, experiences that effect darker-skinned men and women all too often. That being said, contrary to some rather un-reflexive commentary on the experiences of light-skinned people of color elsewhere, being light doesn’t mean you don’t experience racism.  Over the past seven years, professors have told me that I only received competitive grants and fellowships because of affirmative action; that my Afro didn’t look scholarly; that the graduate student applicant pool didn’t include any qualified blacks; and that “critical” race work wasn’t objective.2  These types of not-so-subtle micro-aggressions do not harm a department’s numbers on recruitment and only harm retention rates if they become so unbearable that students drop out.

Undoubtedly, my department has a good record on admitting racial minorities comparative to similarly ranked programs.  And while the numbers aren’t necessarily lying, by equating population with power, they are obscuring the daily lives of graduate students of color in the program.  If this award were granted solely on the racial climate, we wouldn’t deserve it.  Finally, I fear awards like this end up justifying inaction on a department’s problems.  People can point to the award as recognition for a job well done, and oppose movement towards racial equity.  Maybe giving out these awards, without specific benchmarks for departments to achieve, is not such a good idea.



1 Although I can’t speak for the other students of color in the department, many of them have spoken to me privately about similar micro and macro aggressions.  And some have even left graduate school because of what they considered a climate of racial animus.

2 I personally don’t think of myself as all that critical or militant, not because my scholarship supports the status quo, but because I don’t think there is anything all that critical about saying, for instance, that the United States is founded and continues to thrive on racism.  This is simply true.